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The intersection between law and psychology

Who Should Keep the Engagement Ring After a Breakup?

A legal and psychological conundrum: Is a broken engagement breach of contract?

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Let’s say that after a less-than amiable breakup, a couple fights over the engagement ring, and the dispute rises to the level of a lawsuit.

Who wins?

Surprisingly, there is no uniform law in the United States. The answer depends on how the court conceptualizes the engagement ring. Some describe the ring as an absolute gift; once it is given, the giver has no claim over it. Others think of the ring as a token of love, and once that love is broken, the token should be returned. Both beliefs make sense psychologically. The latter belief puts more emphasis on the emotion and the sentimental psyche behind the ring, whereas the first belief treats engagement rings as other gifts are treated.

In sum, whether you can keep the ring depends on which state you live in. Courts have treated engagement rings in a spectrum of ways:

 

Concept: Conditional Gift
Result: She Must Return the Ring

Some states treat the engagement ring as a conditional gift—specifically, a gift conditioned upon marriage. If the marriage does not eventuate, then the gift has to be returned because the condition was not met. Pennsylvania is an example of such a state.

Concept: Pledge
Result: She Must Return the Ring

Some states treat the engagement ring as a pledge. In this concept, the ring represents the pledge, or promise, to get married. Intellectually, there is a difference between a pledge and a conditional gift because the pledge means the ring is symbolic rather than material, whereas the conditional gift means that the ring operates as a material gift except with strings attached. However, the practical effect is the same. Ohio is one state that treats engagement rings as pledges.

Concept: Consideration
Result: She Must Return the Ring

Some states treat engagement rings as consideration for a contract. “Consideration” is a legal term of art in contract law. In order for a contract between two parties to be binding, there must be “consideration,"—a fancy word for "exchanged value." For example, if I promise to sell you a puppy for $100, the puppy is consideration for the $100, and the $100 is consideration for the puppy. Where there is no consideration exchanged—if I promise to give you the puppy for free—the contract is not enforceable in court.

Contracts do not have to be in writing, nor must they be explicit. Courts have found enforceable contracts in situations where the agreement was oral, and have also imposed contracts where the actions of the parties seem to indicate that a contract existed. Here, the theory is that the engagement ring was “consideration” exchanged for the promise of marriage. If the marriage does not happen, then the contract was broken (in legal terms, “breached”), and the ring would have to be returned. Virginia is an example of such a state.

Concept: Unjust Enrichment
Result: She Might Have to Return the Ring

Some states approach the engagement ring problem with the equitable doctrine of “unjust enrichment"—the legal theory that when a party is unfairly enriched, the court has discretion to force it to disgorge it. New York courts have applied this approach before.

Concept: Fraud
Result: She Might Have to Return the Ring

The most punitive (and harshest) approach courts have taken to impose the return of an engagement ring is the legal theory of fraud. Very loosely, this means that you intentionally lied for the purpose of receiving the ring, and your ex-fiance gave you the ring as a result of the lie. Some Texas and Washington state courts that have entertained fraud arguments.  

Concept: Traditional Gift
Result: She Keeps the Ring

Some states treat an engagement ring as they would any other gift. And with few exceptions, gifts are legally considered absolute and irrevocable. For example, if I give you a sweater, I cannot come around a year later and ask for it back. Once I give it to you, it is yours—and some states apply this approach to engagement rings as well.

 

To learn more, read the author's full-length law review article about the law's treatment of romantic gifts.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this blog or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.

Ruth Sarah Lee, JD is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an attorney specializing in complex business litigation.

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